EFF warns against using incarcerated people as “endless supply of free data”

A report by the EFF uncovers some alarming facts about a new "Tattoo Recognition Technology" research program that uses images obtained from incarcerated people.

by Alison Walsh, June 7, 2016

An investigation by the Electronic Frontier Foundation has discovered that government scientists with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) are working with the FBI to develop automated “Tattoo Recognition Technology” for future use by police. Not only does this technology raise important civil liberties concerns, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is objecting to how the data for this research was collected: from incarcerated people without their consent.

The digit rights advocacy group points out in a new report that NIST project leaders only submitted their research for ethical review after the experiments had concluded.

NIST’s Tattoo Recognition Technology program also raises serious questions for privacy: 15,000 images of tattoos obtained from arrestees and inmates were handed over to third parties, including private companies, with little restriction on how the images may be used or shared. Many of the images reviewed by EFF contained personally identifying information, including people’s names, faces, and birth dates.

If that wasn’t alarming enough, NIST researchers also failed to follow protocol for ethical research involving humans—they only sought permission from supervisors after the first major set of experiments were completed. These same researchers have also not disclosed to their supervisors that the tattoo datasets they are using to seed the experiments came from prisoners and arrestees. Under federal research guidelines, research involving prisoners triggers enhanced scrutiny and ethical oversight to prevent their exploitation. Instead, NIST and the FBI are treating inmates as an endless supply of free data. The EFF found that the Tattoo Recognition Technology research program violates existing federal ethics rules on experiments involving incarcerated people.

The lack of oversight is alarming, especially because there is a disturbing history of vulnerable populations being used for unsanctioned experiments that cause them harm. Past ethical abuses, like the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiments on African-American men in the South and the brutal tests performed on men incarcerated at the Holmesburg Prison in Philadelphia, led to new rules to protect vulnerable populations from abuse. Research using incarcerated people now must be pre-approved by an Independent Review Board. That review didn’t happen here.

The EFF is calling on the government to immediately suspend the program, and for scientists to stop using images obtained from incarcerated people without their consent. This demand is particularly timely as the FBI and the NIST are about to launch the next stage of their research, which will involve the distribution of over 100,000 images.

Add your voice to the EFF’s campaign by visiting their Action Center and sending a message to the NIST that scientific ethics and human rights matter.

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